Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Authors and Reviewers: Was It Good For You?

Imagine pulling up to your local drive-thru window and shouting at that screeching menu board:

"I want a 5-star review, please.  Hold the constructive criticism.  I want an extra helping of praise for the characters, a side order of flattery for the author, throw in lots of compliments on the plot, and a large order of applause for the writing style.  And top it off with a glowing recommendation.”

Imagine having to wait in THAT line!

With the near-closure of the trad publishing industry to all but "elite" authors--celebrities, household names, and established authors with astronomical sales records--today's independent reviewers find themselves in roles far beyond what they had envisioned when they first started blogging.

In addition to simply reviewing books, many have transitioned into publicists quite capable of focusing thousands of interested eyes onto an author's latest novel.  They've become polished practitioners of social media, adept at strategically positioning those priceless Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter, Amazon, and Google Plus spotlights upon authors literally starving for attention.

A well-engineered promotional splash by a prominent blogger with hundreds--or even thousands of followers--can serve as a marketing catalyst that can benefit that book and its author long after the initial review has been archived.  Many bloggers open their forums to raffles, guest posts, giveaways, novel excerpts, and spotlight features as well.  A good number delight in interviewing authors struggling to get the word out about themselves and their writing.  Personally, I've been offered a number of interviews with bloggers who had either declined a review or were logistically unable to provide one at the time; needless to say, I enthusiastically accepted.  In retrospect, I can truthfully say that I thoroughly enjoyed every one of my interview experiences and hope to do many more in the future.  

The vast majority of reviewers perform this eye-straining labor out of a love of reading, a devotion to literature, and the satisfaction of turning the world on to a deserving book that might've otherwise gone unnoticed and unread.  But I'd be willing to bet that the occasional THANK YOU from a grateful author does brighten their day.  They sacrifice their leisure hours and family time to read strangers' books and write reviews; not a good way to make a million dollars, but a great way to make a difference in the lives of the people who follow them.

But there are the inevitable times in this delicate relationship when pressures, egos, frustrations, agendas, and personalities will clash.

In an attempt to bolster a sagging Amazon ranking, a frustrated author contacts a reviewer and "demands" a quick 5-star review.  The reviewer declines.  Some caustic comments or emails are exchanged.  At this point in the proceedings, some reviewers will choose to simply ignore the intruder, add another name to their S**t Lists, and move on.

Longtime reviewers, having spent years earning their stripes and carefully cultivating their reputations and followings, may not be quite so tolerant in the face of an overly-aggressive author's disrespect.  You might call it the This Is MY House Effect.  Their blogs are indeed their cyber-homes, and somebody entering their homes and bullying them is unacceptable.  The reviewer is now doing a slow burn.  If the insistent author continues to denigrate the reviewer's standards, character, or methods of conducting business, the wrong button gets pushed.  And some reviewers--if pushed far enough--have no qualms about pushing back.  

At this point, Author Person, I have bad news and worse news for you. 

The bad news? 

Surprise!  Reviewers talk to each other.  The book blogosphere is a huge, interconnected world with countless partnerships, alliances, relationships, connections, groups, associations, and networks.  Information--and word of "troublesome" authors--traverses this matrix at the speed of email.

The worse news?  Once the word is out on you, good luck in finding another reviewer willing to even consider looking at your book. 

I've found that in working with reviewers, the late Frank Sinatra said it best: Nice and Easy Does It ... Every Time.

Welcome to the human condition, dear reader: reviewers--and authors as well--are people, too.

But when the mutual respect thing is happening, the vast majority of reviewers are helpful, generous souls who become treasured allies and partners by virtue of their love of reading, their enjoyment of an absorbing story, and their desire to help authors succeed.

Enough said. 

Now, what about us authors?

I can speak from personal experience here.  (Climbing up onto my soapbox.)

We slave away--sometimes for years--to produce what we hope the book-buying public will judge to be a compelling and satisfying read.  Like our literary comrades--the reviewers--we also sacrifice leisure and family hours in an attempt to entertain the world with our stories.  Our books--whether on electronic devices or printed pages--aren't mere collections of related sentences, paragraphs, and chapters; they are the author's blood, sweat, and tears honed by countless hours of writing and tedious editing.  Each chapter is packed not only with plots, storylines, and characters, but also with the author's emotions and feelings, many of which were exhumed from deep within his/her psyche and laid bare for all the world to see.  We've invested heavily in our novels in the hope that book-buyers will invest in them--and us--as well.  For many of us, our books are our children--and we wish everybody would love our children as much as we do.

However, in our zeal to nurture and protect our children, we sometimes mistakenly perceive potential benefactors as potential villains just waiting for a chance to harm our literary offspring.

As Shakespeare wrote, "Therein lies the rub."

Positive reviews are golden to indie authors.  There's no denying that the current publishing landscape does nothing to discourage this.  They are precious currency; they are credibility; they are acceptance; they are validation; they are approval; they are a literary “high five.” 

Our publishing environment dictates that we need them, but our egos likewise dictate that we crave them like children crave hugs.

But, like some parents at a kids' sporting event, we sometimes allow our pride and protective instincts to override courtesy and good judgment.

When you visit a fast-food restaurant, you have the right to specify exactly what you want: "I want a hamburger, no mayo, small fries, diet soda, and an oatmeal cookie.”

(Whether or not you'll actually receive them--in edible condition--is a story for another post.)

But if you're accepted for a review (no small feat these days; congratulations!), you're rolling the dice on that reviewer's opinion--for better or for worse.  If it's better, you become a happy author; if it isn't, you can always become a philosopher ... or a reviewer.  Simply stated, you pays your money and you takes your chances.  (I added this for literary effect only--don't even think about offering ANYTHING, not even chocolate!)

A reviewer's integrity is akin to a membership card in the blogosphere, something of a badge of honor.  Quality reviewers won't ask you to compromise your integrity as a writer; don't ask them to compromise theirs with a stilted review.

I actually used my imagination (for a change) and formulated my very own Top Ten List of Rules for Authors and Reviewers Playing Nice:

  1. Reviewers would welcome self-published books and review them fairly and objectively.
  2. Authors would routinely submit literate and appropriate queries, and observe genre and submission guidelines.
  3. No author would ever attempt to dictate terms and conditions or issue demands.
  4. Authors and reviewers wouldn't hesitate to cut each other some slack.
  5. Reviewers would follow through--within the agreed-upon timeframe--with fair and honest reviews based solely on literary and entertainment value.
  6. Author-bashing and reviewer-bashing wouldn't happen.
  7. Authors would accept reviews at face value, celebrating them when possible and learning from them when necessary.  Mutual Thank You’s would be commonplace.
  8. Reviewers would post their reviews to—at minimum—Goodreads, one of the major online retailers, and their own blogs (if applicable).  Additional postings would be icing on the cake and considered a favor.
  9. Authors and reviewers would routinely show respect and understanding for each other's time investment, talents, and feelings.
  10. A reviewer could feel free to DNF a book without fear of backlash or retaliation.  The proviso to this rule would include some sort of notification to the author.  This would provide the author with closure to the transaction rather than being left in the dark with no review, no communication, and no explanation--only deafening silence and a bill for the free review copy.  The author’s responsibility under this rule is simple: forget about that particular reviewer and move on to the next one.  MY standard response to this scenario is a polite (and VERY civil) note expressing disappointment that my book didn’t resonate with them, thanking them for their time, and moving on. 

If these ideals ever came to fruition, then perhaps we would all have a reasonable chance for success in this crazy and ever-changing publishing business.

I know I’d be much happier!

Now that I think about it, that 5-star review with a side order of flattery for the author--topped off with a glowing recommendation--sounds pretty good right about now.  A little plastic toy thrown in as well would be perfect.

I’ll take mine to go, please.

P.S: Don't forget to pet your Thesaurus today.